Exploring barriers to funding: restoring capacity, agency, choice and trust

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Ishita Ranjan-Churchill from Spark Insights shares the findings from their research into the experiences of community businesses led by and supporting people experiencing marginalisation.
19 Apr, 2023
Ishita Ranjan-Churchill

Ishita Ranjan-Churchill

Founder, Spark Insights

In 2022, Power to Change commissioned Spark Insights and Locality to research and explore the experiences of community businesses and organisations led by and/or supporting people experiencing marginalisation, their barriers to accessing funding and support, and potential solutions.

In a previous blog post, we explored our approach to the research. In this blog post, we share the key messages from community businesses we spoke with. The full report will be published on 26 April 2023, and the executive summary is available below.

New challenges around capacity in a changing world

Community businesses led by or supporting people experiencing marginalisation are no strangers to capacity issues. The Runnymede Trust suggested in a 2021 research report that current funding models are especially detrimental to organisations run by those from racialised groups, “where their senior members of staff labour as multi-skilled, multi-talented, multi-purpose leaders, working from dawn till dusk”.

Our interviewees reinforced this message, expressing that existing capacity issues around time and staffing were becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Interviews expressed the new challenges and issues that they are faced with in the post-Brexit, Covid-19 impacted world, with both the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis posing new threats. Whilst there is an unprecedented demand on their services, funding and support is neither readily available nor reaching community businesses quickly enough.

Persistent underinvestment and capacity challenges impacting mental wellbeing

What was striking was the link between organisational capacity and personal mental wellbeing and resilience. Many community businesses led by or supporting people experiencing marginalisation heavily rely on small teams or individuals and volunteers to sustain their work. Where community businesses have persistently struggled to access funding and support, there was a notable negative impact on the mental wellbeing of the individuals the community business was reliant on.

Interviewees expressed constantly feeling on the brink of burn out, severe feelings of stress and overwhelm.

Restrictive systems and processes are reinforcing the culture of dependence, competition and a wider “hustle culture” where those who lead community businesses are often juggling paid employment alongside running their organisation. Interviewees stated that this current model exploits people’s passions, whilst forcing them into a project-based way of working that does not allow for flexibility nor long-term growth. Ultimately, these factors contributed to the declining mental wellbeing of individuals who lead community businesses supporting those experiencing marginalisation.

Applicants want their sense of agency and the ability to make choices restored

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the process of applying for and receiving funding itself was commented upon by every interviewee. It became clear that the process was not perceived as simply a challenge, but from application to evaluation, it was a central aspect of upholding barriers to accessing funding and support. Conversations around the application process can be divided into three key themes; time taken, language used, and format.

Regarding the format of applications, a theme that emerged was around the poor experiences of neurodivergent people, people with chronic conditions and those with mental health problems. Interviewees expressed how funding applications contributed to exacerbating their symptoms and created feelings of fatigue and frustration. This was due to poor design and user experiences; from not being able to see the questions up front, being asked for multiple complex documents, systems not being accessible for e-readers, having to wait long periods of time for responses and feedback.

A general consensus emerged from the interviews regarding language – if you know the language you are more successful. Words like “decipher” and “translate” were common in describing how interviewees approached supplier’s “overwhelming and off-putting” language, which was often described as “clinical”, or “a different language” altogether.

Ultimately interviewees expressed that there was no one size fits all solution, but that what was important was restoring that sense of agency and choice by allowing people to make choices that suited their needs and communicating with people in an accessible and inclusive way. An example of this was allowing applicants the option to choose between written, video and audio applications. When it came to language, community businesses preferred communicating with funders who were able to use and adapt their language to reflect the specific communities they were trying to reach.

Trusting community businesses in their impact and expertise

Our interviewees believed that funders are overly reliant on numbers, recognisable names and impact reports in determining an organisation’s “track record”.

For some, it is the age of their organisation or their turnover that means they do not have a sufficient “track record”. For others, funders do not recognise the value of the impact they make as it doesn’t comply with their defined outcomes areas, or funders are not able to understand the market or community they service.

Community businesses are often providing a service or supporting a community that has been historically underserved. This means that there may a lack of wider understanding of the need and impact of their work, but also that organisations who are perceived as having a “track record” in the traditional sense are not necessarily able to meet the same needs as community businesses who are smaller or younger, but have deep connection and trust to their community.

It was recognised by funders and infrastructure organisations we spoke with that it was essential to both build and rebuild trust with community businesses led by or supporting those experiencing marginalisation.

We explore these perspectives in the next blog: Funding and infrastructure organisations must find their North Star to tackle marginalisation.